Numerous versions of Tolstoy's great novel have been made over the
years. This is one of the best, and Basil Rathbone was proud to be a
part of this film.
The film opens in Moscow, with Count Vronsky (Fredric March) drinking with
fellow cavalry officers . He meets up with friend Stiva (Reginald Owen)
and after sobering up, they go to the train station together — Stiva to meet his
sister, Anna Karenina (Greta Garbo), and Vronsky to meet his mother (May
Robson). Vronsky's mother and Anna have become friends during the train
trip from St. Petersburg. Countess Vronsky
introduces Anna to her son Alexei.
At brother Stiva's house, Stiva's wife Dolly (Phoebe
Foster) has discovered his infidelity.
Anna convinces Dolly to forgive Stiva. Dolly's little sister Kitty
(Maureen O'Sullivan) has been seeing a farmer named Levin (Gyles Isham),
who loves her and wants to marry her. But Kitty has become infatuated with
the dashing Count Vronsky. At the next ball they attend it becomes
painfully obvious to Kitty that Vronsky is interested in Anna, not her.
She feels humiliated, but dances with Levin to avoid unpleasant gossip.
The following day Anna returns to St. Petersburg on a
train and finds that Vronsky came to be with her. She tells him to forget her;
she's going home to her husband and son. When they arrive in St.
Petersburg Anna's husband Alexei Karenin (Basil
Rathbone) greets Anna at the station. She introduces him to Count Vronsky
and he quips, "So you left with the mother and returned with the
Karenin, a public official concerned with his
reputation, tells Anna he missed her and adds, "Am I not a good husband to come and meet my wife in
my only free hour?" He's happy to have Anna home, and Anna is
happy to see her son Sergei (Freddie Bartholomew).
Anna continues to meet with Vronsky at social events, and people are
starting to talk about them. At a croquet match Anna tells Vronsky, "This can't go on. I have a
husband and a child. This must end." She fights her feelings
for Vronsky, yet to Countess Lidia it appears that Anna encourages Vronsky.
The Countess tells Karenin that she is shocked. Karenin pretends it is
nothing, saying, "To be disturbed by such trivialities
would be undignified." Although Karenin says this, he is secretly disturbed.
Lidia replies, "If Caesar's wife is above suspicion, it
is because the tone is set by Caesar."
Karenin is pleased that Anna is home.
Countess Lidia says she's shocked by Anna's behavior.
When Anna comes home late Karenin warns her that she is becoming an object of
disagreeable talk. "There are certain rules of decorum that cannot be
disregarded," he says.
"The attentions you have been receiving from Count Vronsky have been
generally noticed," he continues. "Your conduct and deportment were not altogether what
could be desired. . . . I'm not inquiring into your feelings Anna. I've no
right to ferret into your soul. I'm only concerned with appearances. .
. . I'm working on a government bill which requires the concentration of all
my energies. To subject me to annoyance at a critical time like this is very
inconsiderate. . . . I must make you understand: First, the importance of public
opinion. Second, the effect of scandal on your son. Third, the inviolability
of the marriage tie."
Karenin claims that he loves Anna. She replies "It isn't me you love. It's
your career and appearances."
Karenin confronts Anna after she comes home late.
Karenin notices how intensely Anna follows the race.
Vronsky is also receiving criticism because of the scandal. His
mother is upset that he is allowing Anna to interfere with his career. The General sends message to Vronsky
that if his name continues to be linked with that of a certain lady, he will
be forced to ask him to resign from the regiment. But Vronsky is in love and
prepared to give up everything if only Anna will leave Karenin and marry
him. She refuses to do this because she cannot bear to leave her son.
At the horse races Anna watches Vronsky compete (riding a horse named Froo Froo). Karenin notices how intensely Anna follows
the race. Vronsky falls, and
Anna jumps up, concerned. Karenin looks around, more concerned about people
On the way home Anna tells Karenin that she loves Vronsky and cannot bear Karenin. She's
afraid of Karenin. Karenin says he believes in marriage as a sacrament —
they must remain a family because of his position/status. Karenin also says
he realizes that marrying Anna was a mistake, but this is a mistake he must
bear for the sake of his public duty and for the sake of his son.
"You have done what I particularly asked you not to do."
"You will never see this person again."
"The family cannot be broken up by a whim or a caprice, or by the sin of
one of the partners in the marriage. Our life must go on as it has done in
the past. I have stated these views in public. I will not violate them in
"Then you will not give me a divorce?"
"Never! Why should I? To permit you to legalize a sin,
to justify your conduct and his? Never! . . . You will remain here as my wife before the world. You will never see
this...this person again."
"And the alternative?"
"You will join the ranks of those women of ambiguous position, who travel
about Europe from one watering place to another, neither married, nor
unmarried . . . . only your great
love to sustain you. You will resign all claim to Sergei because it would be
my duty to remove him from your influence."
Anna cannot leave her child so she agrees to his terms, to not see Vronsky
"I can assume then that you will never again jeopardize my honor."
"Oh, your honor! Your selfishness, your hypocrisy! Your egotism!
You have never considered me as a human being. Your social position,
your reputation! These must be kept up at what cost to those who are around
you? At what cost?"
After a month of forced separation, Anna comes to Vronsky's house. "I had to come." She tells
him how unpleasant it is at home, how she feels like a prisoner while Karenin watches
her, cold and polite. Vronsky convinces her to come away with him. They
travel to Venice and spend an apparently blissful time together. When
boredom begins to set in Anna and Vronsky
return to St. Petersburg.
Vronsky visits his
old army friends. Many of the officers are planning to resign from the army
and form their own private regiment. They invite Vronsky to join them, but he
feels he cannot. Anna would be devastated if he left her. Still, he's
tempted because he's bored, and restless for new adventures. The happiness that Anna and Vronsky have enjoyed
is ending. Anna can see in Vronsky's eyes that he has regrets about having given up
his army life. Also she is terribly upset that Karenin won't allow her to
see her son Sergei. Her reputation is ruined; people make disparaging remarks
about her in public. To make matters worse, she notices Vronsky flirting
with Princess Sorokina at the opera.
Karenin tells Sergei that his mother is dead.
"You will never enter this house again."
On Sergei's birthday Anna goes to Karenin's house early in the morning
and goes right to Sergei's room. The servants are reluctant to tell Karenin
because Anna had always been kind to them. They let her have time with her
boy. They warn her when Karenin is coming, and Sergei cries as she leaves
him. Karenin says to her:
"This is insupportable. I told my son you were dead. Why do you make me
out to be a tyrant? . . . You will not enter this house
again. You will never see Sergei again. . . . I told
you that before you went away. do you hear?"
Anna feels horrible. Vronsky complains about enforced leisure in the
country. "Why did we come here?" Then he receives a letter from
Yashvin inviting him to join a regiment of volunteers, to fight the Turks.
Anna is upset at the idea of being left alone, and thinks that Vronsky merely wants to escape, that he no
longer loves her. She makes him angry, and he blurts out that he's
sick and tired of love. He does love her, but leaves in anger, giving her no
words of comfort.
Later, regretting her words that angered Vronsky, Anna dashes off to the
train station to see him before he leaves. At the
station Anna searches the crowd for Vronsky and sees him holding hands with
Princess Sorokina as he bids her farewell. Heartbroken, she
sits alone at the train station until dark and then walks over to the tracks
and throws herself under the wheels of a moving train. Anna's relationship
with Vronsky has ended at the same place it began — the Moscow train
Behind the scenes photo with cameraman Bill Daniels and
director Clarence Brown on the left,
and Greta Garbo and Basil Rathbone in the sleigh
As "husband" and "wife" in Anna Karenina Garbo and
Basil Rathbone are caught off guard by the roving lens, as they
indulge in an informal chat on the set while awaiting their next
Photo by Grimes, MGM, 22 June 1935
Basil Rathbone on the set of Anna Karenina
Here Garbo is laughing gaily with March as he takes her in
his arms for a rehearsal of a ballroom dancing scene. Behind March
stands dance director Chester Hale, expert on mazurkas.
Anytime you try to condense a 900-page novel into a 95-minute film some
major elements of the book must fall to the wayside. What is missing from
this film adaptation of "Anna Karenina" is the entire love story of Levin
and Kitty. Levin is the hero of the novel, who is looking for the meaning of
existence. In this film Levin and Kitty are minor characters. This is really
the story of Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky, and even that is condensed. All references to Anna's and Vronsky's illegitimate child were
removed from the film by the censorship agency. In spite of its
shortcomings, this 1935 adaptation of Anna Karenina is very well regarded,
and a favorite of many. The costumes and sets are fabulous, and the
cinematography impressive. The decadence of Imperial Russia is clearly
visible throughout the film.
The cast was wonderful, except for Fredric March,
whose portrayal of Vronsky is very stiff. Vronsky is supposed to be
incredibly handsome and charming, and needs to be in order to persuade a
married woman to give up everything for him. Fredric March just doesn't have
that appeal. If Vronsky had been played by Errol Flynn, most of the women in
St. Petersburg would have left their husbands for him!
Greta Garbo was stunning and magnificent. She's totally believable in the role,
and earned the first NYC Film Critics Best Actress Award for this
performance. Garbo had played the role once before, in the 1927 silent film
Love, with John Gilbert. Fredric March's Vronsky seemed rather shallow and
Rathbone's portrayal of Karenin was perfect: realistically cold and yet
also sympathetic. Basil credited Garbo with inspiring him to give one of the
best performances of his life.
In an interview in Motion Picture magazine, Rathbone said, "In
Anna Karenina I had what many would call a brutal and merciless part
as the the husband, yet it is a character that is real. No caricature there!
My own attitude toward Karenin is that he was a man who honored the institution of
marriage, and there was no brutality about him. He was an upstanding
citizen, married to a very physical wife, whose tragedy was nothing compared
to his. He is, indeed, the central character of the story. I should like to
play it again."
"Before I played Karenin I was puzzled about the technique of film
acting, and wasn't satisfied at all with what I had been doing. During the
watched Garbo and learned from her what I think is the secret of good
screen acting; play your part with the least possible physical movement and the
greatest possible mental projection. It is different on the stage. There
your whole body is constantly exposed to the audience and you must have
perfect coordination from head to foot....Physical movement is far more
important on the stage than it is in films. In films mental projection
means everything. And Garbo has this power of
mental projection to a superb degree. I learned from her how little to do
in order to get the greatest results. My work improved one hundred
per-cent. Now, when I play a part, subconsciously I ask myself: What would
Garbo do with this?"("Hissed to the
Heights — That's Rathbone," Motion Picture magazine, July 1936, p.
In his autobiography Rathbone has quite a bit
to say about Anna Karenina and the character
"Here, in the making of this picture, is
the almost perfect example of a loss of integrity that becomes inevitable
when a single label is tabbed to a character of many dimensions. Karenin
is not a heavy, a motion picture term that Tolstoy would have shuddered to
hear defined. Anna had married Karenin of her own free will: they have a
son, a boy of about ten years old. She falls in love with a very
attractive young man, Vronsky, who is more of her age, Karenin being
somewhat older than Anna. That she had fallen out of love with Karenin
might be held much to Karenin's account. But he had not been cruel or
unkind, rather he had been insensitive and possessive, and without much
imagination. His faults are quite evident and Tolstoi does not spare him.
That Anna should have fallen in love with Vronsky was quite understandable
to all except of course Karenin. But surely this does not make him a
"There is one scene in Tolstoi's novel
that had to be eliminated from the picture script for reasons of
censorship. ... This scene is vital to any appreciation and understanding
of the character of Karenin. It is that scene where Anna is about to give
birth to her lover's child. Karenin sends for Vronsky, and quietly in his
study he tells Anna's love that his mistress is about to become the mother
of his child. This is no time or place for Karenin and he leaves Vronsky
alone to face the hour of his making. There is bitterness in Karenin at
this moment, and who shall blame him? But there is also a pride and
integrity born of his conservative and unchangeable background, and maybe
a degree of compassion for the bastard child about to be born to his Anna
and her lover. To eliminate this scene is to present Karenin unjustly — a
dimension—several dimensions of his being are eliminated from the estimate
we are asked to make of him." (In and Out of Character, page 139)
In another interview in Motion Picture magazine Rathbone said, "Karenin is a human being—a man
whose point of view you can see even though you don't wholly sympathize
with it. To me he's an even more tragic figure than Anna—for there's no
greater tragedy than that of the person who feels, but is so bound by
convention that he can't give expression to his feeling. I can understand
him. I can put myself into his shoes as I couldn't into Murdstone's, and
I've never been so happy or at ease in any picture."
("It's Cheers for Basil Rathbone Now," Motion Picture,
August 1935, p. 76)
relates how he helped little Freddie Bartholomew prepare for the scene in
which he, as Karenin, tells his son that his mother is dead. Basil
suggested to Freddie that he imagine that he's being told that his
cherished guardian Cissie is dead. Basil felt that the technique worked,
and Freddie's performance was deeply touching (In and Out of Character, pages
93-94). I personally felt that the scene in which Anna visited
her son for the last time was much more emotional. Freddie certainly did a
fine job in all his scenes.
Rathbone had met Greta Garbo at a luncheon at John Gilbert's house about
six years before filming Anna Karenina. She was very friendly and seemed
completely at ease; they had played tennis together and swam in the pool
together. Yet, when they met on the set of Anna Karenina, she was very formal, and
gave no indication that she remembered ever meeting Rathbone before. Basil asked
her for an autograph and she refused! He was confused and hurt by this,
and found Garbo a mystery. (In and Out of Character, pages 141-142)
In this video clip Karenin confronts his wife about the
"disagreeable gossip" he's hearing about her.
Review from The Motion Picture and the Family,
Review from Motion Picture Herald,
6 July 1935
from Screenland magazine, November 1935
Most of the reviews of Anna Karenina raved about the stars, Garbo
and March, and said nothing about Rathbone other than to mention that he was
in the film. A few reviewers wrote a bit more about Rathbone:
"Basil Rathbone is magnificently irritating as the
convention-bound, petty government official who is is husband of Anna."
—The Film Daily,
19 July 1935 (Read the full review below.)
"Little Freddie Bartholomew is pretty fine and
Reginald Owen and Basil Rathbone rate their share of honors." —Modern
Screen, September 1935 (Read the full review below.)
"Rathbone, . . . and others support splendidly." —Motion Picture Daily, 1
July 1935 (Read the full review below.)
"Maureen O'Sullivan, Basil Rathbone, Phoebe Foster, Reginald Owen,
and Reginald Denny are outstanding in the supporting cast." —Movie
Classic, October 1935 (Read the full review below.)
"An almost perfect choice for the part of Miss Garbo's husband is Basil
Rathbone." —Variety, 4 September 1935 (Read the full
"The film's most fascinating characterization is offered by Basil Rathbone,
whose cold cruelty in banishing his wife is shown to be the by-product of
his own broken heart (though Rathbone never allows himself to descend into
cheap sentiment)." —
Hal Erickson, Rovi
Read full reviews here:
Review from The Film Daily, 19 July 1935
Review from Modern
Screen, September 1935
Review from Motion Picture Daily, 1 July 1935
Review from Movie Classic, October 1935
From Variety, 4 September 1935
Anna Karenina was awarded the Mussolini Cup for the best
foreign film at the 1935 Venice Film Festival. In addition, the National
Board of Review named Anna Karenina one of the Top Ten Films of
Extras: Stanley Andrews, André
Cheron, Davison Clark, Claudia Coleman, Carrie Daumery, Carlos De
Valdez, Sarah Edwards, Sam Flint, Otto Fries, Henry Mowbray, Joseph
North, Barry Norton, William Orlamond, Georges Renavent, Pepi Sinoff,
Leonid Snegoff, Dickie Walters